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Turkish Bath

There's an area in Cekirge, Turkey which has thermal mineral springs that have attracted visitors since the sixth century. Cekrige is just outside of the Turkish city of Bursa, which was the original capital of the Ottoman Empire. In search of a traditional Turkish bath experience, The Savvy Traveler's Jim Metzner traveled to Cekirge, a three hour journey by ferry and bus from Istanbul. Jim takes us with him inside a hamam -- a bathhouse which dates back to the fourteenth century.

Tranquility at the Turkish Baths
by Jim Metzner

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Like many Turkish cities, Cekirge is a mix of urban sprawl dotted with remnants of architectural wonders. Surrounding the Old Spa is a nondescript hotel and rows of apartment buildings. But the venerable bathhouse is an oasis of austere beauty. It looks a bit like a mosque, its domed, tiled roofs and the surrounding walls have an aura of serene impregnability, a monument to centuries of tranquility.

towel Entering the hamam is like going back in time. It feels almost like you're in a place of worship, standing by a fountain under an huge dome, built with stone and mortar. This is the entrance hall and resting area. There are men, swathed in towels, lying down on deck chairs. They look seriously relaxed. Surrounding this room there are little cubicles where you change your clothes. I sign up for a rubdown and a massage, which costs about $20, and am given a few plastic tokens and the key to one of the little cubicles.

Clad only in wooden clogs and a plaid cloth called a pestamal, which wraps around you like a sarong, I give my tokens to an attendant and am instructed to lie down on a deck chair in the resting area. It's all men here; the women's baths are on the other side of the building.

taking bath While I'm waiting around, I decide to go in and explore the intermediate room of the hamam. It's marble, a dome ceiling again, with great acoustics.

Around the perimeter of the intermediate room are about a dozen marble basins with hot and cold running water, where my trusty guidebook tells me I should soap down and then rinse off with the help of a metal bowl that's been left in the basin. With gestures and sign language and an occasional English word or two, I'm instructed to head over to the main room, which is typically the hottest room in the bathhouse. Now in this particular hammam, the room is certainly high in humidity, but not all that hot in temperature. If you've ever been to a schvitz, like the Russian Baths in New York, that has a lot more firepower. Aah...but what this room has is a deliciously hot mineral water pool, big enough to swim in.

towel A few laps in this huge marble bathtub, and I'm ready for the the massage room. The massage room is also surrounded by marble basins, and it's while sitting next to one of these that an attendant begins to rub me down.

With the help of what feels like a loofah mitt, the attendant soaps and scrapes off several layers of skin. Now while all this soaping is going on -- and indeed the whole time you're in the hamam -- the pestamal stays wrapped around the waist. Modesty is the order of the day. After a thorough rinse, I'm led to a bed-sized marble platform in the center of the massage room.

Lying face-down on the slab, I'm soaped down one more time. Then it's over to the basin for a last rinse and yet another massage as I'm dried off, wrapped in towels and shepherded back to the waiting room, looking like one of those guys I saw about an hour ago.

From Cekirge, in Turkey, I'm Jim Metzner for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources for Tranquility at the Turkish Baths

The Turkish bath or hamam and its searing, sweaty pleasures are known world-wide and trace back for centuries. Long before Turkey was established as a separate country, the Romans, Byzantines, and nomadic peoples of the region had their own variations of bathing rituals. Today you might hear it called "hydrotherapy."

That's the practice of alternating hot and cold water to stimulate blood and lymph circulation. It also relieves congestion, eases backache, reduces stress and just...ahh, sorry...where was I? Istanbul? Bavaria? Lourdes? Somewhere baking amid 160 degrees of bricks and boulders...with occasional buckets of ice water.

Way back, the Byzantine baths were more than places to wash, but social clubs where friends, Romans and countrymen met to converse or argue over politics. And in Turkey, important occasions are still celebrated with rejoicing at the bath. One hamam constructed in 1715 even has its own Web site...but that wouldn't give you that unbearable lightness of being feeling you get at the real site, now would you?

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